Peer Review – ‘chipped’, not broken

Highlights of our Liveblog of #prwdebate

This blog was written jointly by Tim Sands and Anna Perman

Peer review: it’s an old, and possibly slightly dusty practice, but it is also tried and tested. As the internet is turning many established practices upside down, and in the light of some well publicised failures, many people have suggested ways to improve the system. Maria, one of our crack team of Biology Editors, took part in a debate last week asking research shows that open peer review produces better quality of reviewer reports.

Peer review is also really time-consuming . It greatly increases delay between an academic submitting an article and seeing it published. Our journal BMC Biology has developed a way around this by allowing  authors to opt-out of the re-review of their manuscripts where reviewers have raised non-fatal criticisms. About half the authors choose this option, saving rounds of iterative re-review and keeping authors and reviewers from reaching the ends of their tethers.

Meanwhile, the number of articles being submitted to journals is increasing, placing a huge burden on reviewers. To help reduce this, across all our journals we encourage transfer of manuscripts rejected after peer review between journals, along with their reports. For the authors this saves the merry-go-round of reformatting and resubmitting their work to new journals and facing a new set of reviewers. For reviewers it means their work is not wasted. We are also starting to experiment with transfers between publishers, and with services such as Peerage of Science that separate the review of work and its publication, allowing authors to take their reviews with them.

Should we do away with pre-publication peer review altogether?

Nikolaus Kriegeskorte, took a more radical stance, proposing we should publish all papers on the internet, and rely on crowd-sourced, post-publication peer review (F1000Research already do something a little bit like this). The ‘arsenic life’ controversy, is a great example of the importance of post-publication, crowd-sourced peer review.

However the audience saw quite a few problems: What if manuscripts describe experiments that could change medical practice and patient choices before they had been properly scrutinised? Who can comment and what weight is given to each? What if manuscripts get no reviews? And some researchers in the audience said they greatly value journals’ editorial functions and curatorial role.

Our own experiment in alternative peer review, Biology Direct, has  been publishing since 2006. This journal does not publish articles before they have been reviewed, but aims to address the effect of anonymous peer reviewers closing down debate before an article is published. If authors can convince three Editorial Board members to read and comment on their manuscript or nominate reviewers, it can be published.  The candid and critical comments from the named reviewers are published alongside.

Retractions – are they a sign of progress, or weakness?

Numbers of retractions are rising and increasingly visible thanks to Retraction Watch. The general consensus was that retractions are overall a good thing, reflecting a greater scrutiny of published work and helping to  correct the scientific record. We are members of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), and their guidelines are invaluable to decide when a retraction is needed. The rise in retractions may be more due to better methods of detecting problems than rise in misconduct.

A point the panel emphasised was that peer review and publication is built on trust in scientists and not designed to root out misconduct – so published papers should not be ‘sacrosanct’.

Tell me more!

BioMed Central are taking part in lots more events like this in the coming months

  • Elizabeth Moylan, another of our Biology Editors will take part in Peer Review Nuts & Bolts workshop on 25th April, organized by Sense about Science
  • Todd Hummell will speak during the session on Open Peer Review at Council of Science Editors meeting in San Antonio at the beginning of May
  • We are organizing a panel debate on peer review during Editor Days in Doha (23 April) and London (14 May)

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